SyRI algorithm system banned after court ruling
Today, the court in The Hague ruled on the government's use of the algorithm system SyRI (System Risk Indication). The court decided that the government must stop profiling citizens with large-scale data analysis to detect social security fraud. Dutch citizens are no longer "a priori suspects".
The lawsuit against the Dutch state had been filed by a coalition of civil society organisations, consisting of the Civil Rights Protection Platform, the Dutch Legal Committee for Human Rights (NJCM), Privacy First, KDVP Foundation, trade union FNV, the National Clients' Council and authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari.
The court comes to the opinion That SyRI violates the European Convention on Human Rights. SyRI infringes disproportionately on the private lives of citizens. This applies not only to people identified by SyRI as high risk, but to everyone whose data is analysed by SyRI. According to the court, SyRI is not transparent and therefore not verifiable. The invasion of private life is unforeseeable for citizens and they cannot defend themselves against it.
The court also mentioned the real risk of discrimination and stigmatisation of citizens in so-called problem neighbourhoods where SyRI was deployed. This based on socio-economic status and possibly migration background. There is a risk of prejudice in the deployment of SyRI that cannot be controlled. Mr Ekker and Mr Linders, lawyers for the plaintiffs: "The court confirms that the large-scale linking of personal data violates fundamental human rights, including the protection of privacy, EU law and Dutch law. This ruling is therefore also important for other European countries and at international level."
From now on, personal data of unsuspicious citizens may not simply be aggregated from different sources if there is no well-founded suspicion.
Dash in the sand
"This ruling is an important line in the sand against unbridled data collection and risk profiling. With it, the court calls a clear halt to mass surveillance of innocent citizens. SyRI and similar systems should now be abolished immediately," said Privacy First director Vincent Böhre.
“We have been vindicated today on all major fundamental points. This is a timely victory for the legal protection of all citizens in the Netherlands," said Tijmen Wisman of the Civil Rights Protection Platform.
Co-claimant trade union FNV also disapproves of SyRI on grounds of principle. "We are happy that the judge is now definitively drawing a line under SyRI," said Kitty Jong, vice-president of FNV.
The parties hope the ruling will herald a change in the way the government handles citizens' data. They feel encouraged in this by the court's considerations: these do not only apply to SyRI, but also to similar practices. For instance, many municipalities have their own data linking systems that profile citizens for all kinds of policy purposes. A linking bill with an even wider scope than SyRI will also allow private parties' databases to be linked to government databases. However, the Hague court ruling puts a stop to these Big Data practices. It is therefore crucial, according to the plaintiffs, that the SyRI verdict be reflected in current and future political policies.
The lawsuit against SyRI serves both a legal and societal purpose. With this verdict, plaintiffs see both goals realised. Merel Hendrickx of the PILP-NJCM: "Besides stopping SyRI, it was just as much our intention to start a social discussion about the way the government deals with its citizens in a digitising society. This ruling shows how important it is to have that social discussion."
Although the legal adoption of SyRI passed off silently in 2014, debate about the legality of the system swelled after the court case was announced. Deployment of SyRI in two neighbourhoods in Rotterdam-Zuid led to protests among residents and discussion in the city council in early 2019. Not much later, Mayor Aboutaleb pulled the plug on the research due to doubts about its legal basis. In June 2019, the Volkskrant revealed that SyRI had not detected a single fraudster since its introduction. In October 2019, UN rapporteur Philip Alston wrote in a critical letter to the court expressing profound doubts about the legality of SyRI. In late November 2019, SyRI won a Big Brother Award.
The coalition was represented at the trial by Anton Ekker (Ekker Advocatuur) and Douwe Linders (SOLV Advocaten) and is coordinated by the NJCM's Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP).
The full court ruling is here online.